Janáček, From the House of the Dead

The Czech National Opera performed Janáček’From the House of the Dead at the Czech National Theater this evening. Or at least the singers and orchestra did. I do not know what opera the stage director decided to stage at the same time.  Daniel Špinar’s biography does not indicate any connection to Germany – he is Czech and studied in Prague, but nevertheless managed to put German-style nonsense on stage, devoid of connection to the plot.

Janáček’s opera is difficult even under the best of circumstances. It is meant to be a dark psychodrama, without a lot of first-hand action (although there can be some visual reenacting of the plot descriptions sung by successive characters). Loosely based on Dostoyevsky, it takes place in a bleak prison in Omsk, Siberia. If left alone, the little action that does take place can simply allow thoughtful performers to use their lines to create images; however, there also remains room for intelligent direction.

On the musical side, the performers acquitted themselves as best they could under the circumstances. The orchestra sometimes sounded a bit thin, but conductor Robert Jindra kept the pace and shape. A cast composed of repertory singers had no standouts, and since there really is no lead character in this opera this was fine. They certainly did not disappoint. However, the staging proved too distracting to allow the cast to give full portrayals.

The action moved to what looked like a broken-down music school in Soviet times (at least the prison guards were wearing Soviet uniforms, otherwise who knows?). During the overture, the prisoners came on stage in front of the scrim wearing white tie. As they started to mimic the conductor in front of the orchestra, an officer forced them to take prisoners numbers and have mug shots, before sending them each off dejected. When the curtain opened for the first two acts, they were in prison uniforms in the practice room, a smashed piano on the floor and music stands everwhere. In Act One, they all carried brooms; in Act Two, they had trash bags. The walls were grungy, the floor tiles were ripped up, and there was a lot of homosexual sex going on. A lot (yes, I get it, it is a prison, but is this really necessary?). When the plot called for the prisoners to tend to an eagle who had broken a wing and been adopted by them, they started fawning over the ruined piano. Periodically they gathered the music stands together and performed on their brooms or other objects.

When the curtain came up in Act Three, someone had repaired the piano, the floor, and the walls, and all the prisoners wore white tie again. A mostly-naked female dancer came on stage (representing a character in the story being told by one prisoner) and contorted herself uncomfortably all over the floor and literally climbed the walls. Why?, we may never know. When the story line called for the eagle, nursed back to health, being set free by the prisoners, a miniature upside-down piano flew off the top of the stage. (If the director wanted to represent the eagle, why not have an eagle instead of a upside-down flying miniature piano? The eagle is right there in the plot!) In all, the director thought he was clever by staging some other opera tonight to represent the one on the program, but it would be much more clever to actually stage the opera on the program.

I bought a ticket because I had wanted to see this rarely-performed opera. I still haven’t seen it.

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